iPhone apps for your rug rats

Every day another gazillion iPhone applications are released into the wild, and the vast majority are designed for grownups. But more and more developers, realizing how many young hands are reaching for their parents' phones, are creating apps for kids. The list below highlights some of the more promising entries in the exploding field.

By Chris Colin

Clifford's Be Big with Words

Clifford's Be Big With Words

Clifford's Be Big With Words
$1.99

Your kid's favorite big red dog has branched out into the world of on-the-go spelling lessons. This basic word game lets users build more than 100 three-letter words from a palette of letters, then watch as a paintbrush illustrates the newly spelled terms. As simple as the popular cartoon dog himself, and just as catchy.

The bottom line: Clifford the Big Red Dog makes spelling fun.

Cooking Mama

Cooking Mama

iTunes Store
Ages 4 and up, $6.99

Why not Cooking Papa? Why must the young cook be a girl? Legitimate questions, but this is still a worthwhile introduction to the culinary arts. Using the tilt and touch features of the iPhone, kids can execute all manner of virtual chef maneuvers, from chopping to mixing to garnishing. They're not exactly ready for Iron Chef by the time they've mastered the dozen or so recipes, but their appetite is whetted — and they have a new appreciation for what mama or papa are doing in the kitchen.

Bottom line: Your kid can refine his kitchen techniques as a virtual chef.

Three Little Pigs

The Three Little Pigs

The Three Little Pigs: Interactive Fairy Tale for Kids
99¢

Let's face it, there are times when you don't have the energy to read your youngster his or her favorite story for the 15th time in the same day. A phone's no replacement, but it can at least buy you a breather. This app is nothing more than an animated version of the classic story. Kids flick through the different pages, reading along. Critics have complained that the famous "I'll huff and I'll puff" line has been weirdly removed. True and baffling. But this is intended for young kids who just need a little virtual story to tide them over between live ones, and it accomplishes that nicely.

The bottom line: Not as good as the real thing, but this animated fairy tale is worth a look.

Tap Tune

Tap Tune

Tap Tune Free (12 songs)/Tap Tune (50 songs)
Free/99¢

You've already decided your progeny will play in the London Philharmonic — for now, there's the little matter of her never having touched an instrument. This app provides a fun (and extremely basic) introduction to the feel of making music. Just by tapping the screen, the user determines the rhythm in which one of a dozen prerecorded songs will play. Tap faster, and it speeds up; tap slower, it slows down. Good for sing-alongs too, and perhaps for inspiring youngsters to pick up that violin next.

The bottom line: Tap Tune's an easy way to get rhythm.

First Words Animals

First Words: Animals

First Words: Animals
$1.99

Another spelling app, this one introduces about three dozen animated animals to the user. By moving letters around, your budding reader learns to sound out words and eventually spell the animal in question. Neither better nor worse than Clifford's Be Big With Words — consider it a complement.

The bottom line: A basic spelling app with great graphics.

MyPaint

MyPaint

MyPaint Free/MyPaint 2
Free/$1.99

There are countless drawing and painting apps out there, but this one is particularly well designed. In addition to basic finger sketches, users can paint directly over the pictures in their photo album. A bonus for impatient young artistes, the program saves creations automatically — even if the painter abruptly moves on to another pursuit.

The bottom line: A well-designed drawing and painting app.

myHomework

myHomework
Free

Designed with older kids in mind, this application helps students keep track of their various assignments. In essence, it's the techie to-do list of the book report set — due dates are sorted chronologically, and homework is broken down by class. "I forgot!" becomes a lot harder to say with this app.

The bottom line: MyHomework can help make lame excuses for forgotten assignments a thing of the past.

iAmino

iAmino

iAmino
$2.99

Your average teen may gravitate toward Grand Theft Auto, but plenty have a soft spot for quirkier interests. For them we highlight this semi-eccentric app: a reference tool for learning — you guessed it — amino acids. Got a kid keen on codons and isoelectric points? He or she will be delighted someone came up with this.

The bottom line: Bio students will thank you.

Chris Colin is the author of What Really Happened to the Class of '93 and writes the "On the Job" column for the San Francisco Chronicle as well as stories for the New York Times, Mother Jones, McSweeney’s Quarterly, and GOOD magazine. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and daughter.